Directed by: Nadine Labaki || Produced by: Anne-Dominique Toussaint
Screenplay by: Nadine Labaki, Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily || Starring: Nadine Labaki, Adel Karam, Yasmine Al Masri, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisele Aouad, Dimitri Staneofski, Sihame Haddad, Aziza Semaan, Fadia Stella, Fatmeh Safa
Music by: Khaled Mouzanar || Cinematography: Yves Sehnaoui || Country: Lebanon || Language: Arabic, French
Running Time: 96 minutes
According to its press history, writer-director/lead actress Nadine Labaki’s critical darling was notable for being one of the few films set in Lebanon not to depict the surrounding landscape as a war zone, particularly the film’s principal location of interest, the capital city of Beirut. I’ve only seen one other film set in Lebanon, but from what I see happening in that region of the world on the news, that omission of warfare and politics in this setting is striking.
In any case, I’m not sure what all the hype was about regarding the film’s actual artistic quality. The film is not bad by any means, but there’s not much interesting storytelling, engrossing characters, funny jokes, or much cinematic excitement in general that will stimulate the pulse of any non 18-35 year-old estrogen-soaked viewer. I can understand the movie’s appeal to the female crowd, given its female-centered story and focus on girl issues, not to mention how it passes the sacred (and amusing) Bechdel Test with ease. However, beyond regards to the affirmative-action/sexual diversity-quotient, there’s nothing terribly enticing here.
But again, the film is by no means terrible or even close to being bad. Labaki shows promise as an up-and-coming director. She emphasizes her story’s thematic points and focuses on the right characters (primarily the main group of young female friends, an older female companion, and one or two males that are associated with the group), while also showing restraint by omitting focus on others. Her use of music to accentuate character emotions and tone is also commendable.
The primary female group of interest are themselves a mixed bag, which is what hangs the movie somewhere above mediocrity. Caramel’s entire thesis is that the women of Beirut are the same as women everywhere (a concept of universal, global sisterhood), and that although each of them has their own personal struggles and social demons, the support, compassion, and guidance of their sisterhood sees them through life’s troubles. This is a nice message and I have no problem with its cheerful optimism, but my main complaints are that about half of the main characters are not interesting; the screenplay is spread thin covering too many characters in such a short time (ninety minutes). Furthermore, many of the conflicts our heroines face are analyzed in such a cliched, predictable manner that one can mentally check out numerous times during the story; there’s little excitement, humor, or passion to wake you up from your stupor.
The saving grace of the film is Lebaki’s lead performance. She’s by far the best actor and plays by far the most well written character (surprise, surprise). Her arc and relationship struggles are fleshed out enough that I almost wish the entire film had been exclusively about her. That’s arguably the film’s greatest error — instead of opting for a strong, central focus on one character (Lebaki’s protagonist) for ninety minutes, or writing a longer, more sprawling story with an ensemble cast (a la Sex and the City ), Caramel tries to find an awkward middle ground by covering an ensemble cast in just over an hour and a half. Sometimes a happy medium isn’t the best route.
Still, the fact that these people feel relatable as opposed to their more caricatured counterparts in, say, Sex and the City, goes a long way toward making the movie enjoyable. Caramel also lacks that movie’s humor and wit, but I suppose realism worked best in this case. If you’re interested in a mildly feminist, sisterhood movie from the Middle East (a more common subgenre than you’d think), Caramel will lift your spirits if you’re a Western viewer, or provide an empathetic outlet if you’re not. It’s cinematic girl-power, only not turned to the max.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Labaki’s a competent director and at times an interesting screenwriter. Her acting stands out more than either her screenplay or her work behind the camera, but she’s an impressive versatile talent nonetheless. Caramel is charming in its simplicity and affection for the universal “normality” of womanhood and the modern feminine condition. It admirably ignores the divisive political turmoil of the region in favor of the human element. Some of the group members take advantage of their healthy chemistry.
— However… Caramel lacks much of a cinematic punch in terms of either narrative excitement or witty humor. Like plenty of pretty girls you go on dates with but never commit to an exclusive relationship, she’s a physically well built specimen and reasonably intelligent, but she ain’t got much sass, spunk, or personality to write home about.
—> ON THE FENCE
? If you ever have to pose as a hooker to get a private room for yourself and your man, you’re dating the wrong guy.
Good review. I agree that the narrative runs cold, and there is no real “excitement” in this film, but I also think that it is those things which somehow define the director’s take on any story: the simplicity in the story-telling and the attention to the cultural divides/religious issues. It is like the director’s prime aim was to show the daily life and paradoxical feelings/thoughts of these women, and only THEN to make a viewable film out of it.
I think we’re on the same page with regard to the filmmaker’s thought process. Caramel could’ve used another rewrite to beef up the characters’ personality or dialogue, or maybe generate a more cohesive central conflict, however minor, that wove the ensemble cast together. As it it is, the story is too light over too many characters.
I understand Labaki was going for a more ‘slice of life’ tone than a traditional character-driven format, but at a certain point, cinematic moments lose their luster when the story’s overall pacing is an afterthought. Narrative structure is always important, even if it’s meant to be a subversive structure.